Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Review 2.24

An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt’s throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh. [Source]

It becomes clear quite early on in The Woman Who Would Be King that author Kara Cooney is personally outraged by the near erasure of Egyptian King Hatshepsut from the annals of history. And well she should be; the only reason that Egyptologists were able to recover any traces of Hatshepsut’s reign at all is that she built so profusely during her reign that her successors were simply incapable of finding and destroying all of her iconography.

Every book lover still mourning the loss of the Library at Alexandria can probably sympathize.

Still, precious little information has survived as to what Hatshepsut’s personal life was like, or what her motivations were for seizing the throne. Cooney explains this in the introduction, and admits that large areas of her biography on Hatshepsut’s life are based, by necessity, on conjecture. And it’s true that she resorts to using the word “perhaps” at an irritatingly frequent pace. We simply cannot know the circumstances under which Hatshepsut was crowned King. What we’re left with is speculation, which Cooney uses to fill in the gaps in the historical record as best she can.

There are a few less savory aspects of life in ancient Egypt that cannot be denied. Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and give birth to at least one daughter. Inbreeding was standard practice within royal bloodlines at the time, and she may have been the product of inbreeding herself. Also, far from the gilded surfaces and cool stone palaces we picture from films, life in this time period was short and hard. Disease was as common as sand, and the royalty in the palace would not have been immune from lice, boils, malaria, and worms. Cooney accepts these facts as further proof of Hatshepsut’s exceptionalism and, in truth any woman who survived into adulthood and through childbirth in ancient Egypt was most definitely worthy of high praise. And Hatshepsut managed to do it all while holding a kingdom together.

After her death, all of Hatshepsut’s statues and icons were torn down, and her face was replaced in many other reliefs. The exact reason for this systematic destruction is just one of a thousand things we will never know about Hatshepsut’s reign. I enjoyed that Cooney did not take an extreme feminist slant as this stage, as she noticeably did in the introduction. While it is incredibly likely that Hatshepsut’s successors were threatened by her status as a female king, it may have had more to do with the shaky line of succession left in the new King Thutmose III, and his desire to avoid civil war that led to Hatshepsut.

I’ve always loved stories about ancient Egypt. Growing up, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game was one of my favorite childhood books. However, this biography was accessible to anyone, regardless of prior knowledge of Egyptian society. I was familiar with a lot of it, but ended up learning a ton more.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Woman Who Would Be King here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Homegoing by Ya’a Gyasi (2018)

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Review 2.14

How far back can you trace your ancestry? I can go back four generations on my mother’s side, to my great-grandmother whom I was lucky enough to know for twenty-five years before she passed. On my father’s side, I can go back only three generations to my grandfather, who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II and passed away when I was in high school. I imagine this is more or less normal. People can trace their ancestry back somewhere between three to five generations before the trail becomes difficult to follow. Of course you always have outliers, like the haughty New Englanders who can prove their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

How interesting would it be to know the full story? How did your family come to be your family? What strokes of luck and trials of fate determined their lives and hopes and happiness? At least I can say that my family came to the United States deliberately, in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. This is part of my privilege.

Homegoing seeks to tell just one story among millions of people whose ancestors had had no say in their own futures, and were instead torn from their home countries and thrust into a life of labor on faraway shores. It also tells the story of those who stayed.

This debut novel by Ghanaian author Ya’a Gyasi will draw inevitable comparison to Alex Haley’s groundbreaking Roots. Both tell a generational story, one that stretches over four hundred years and the span of an ocean. Both highlight the injustices of slavery, and the constant backsliding struggle for former slaves to succeed under Jim Crow and segregation. The one huge difference is that while Roots focused solely on the lives of the slaves taken across the Atlantic,  Homegoing keeps half of its plot on the shores of Africa; and also tells the story of the changing political landscape of the region as it is torn apart and knitted back together again and again by war and colonization.

Gyasi does something else very striking with her novel. She acknowledges that the tribes of Africa were actively complicit in the slave trade. Warring tribes often kept captured rivals as slaves in their own villages, and they began selling these prisoners for a profit to the white slavers who came to the shores of the Gold Coast. Homegoing sugarcoats none of these unpleasant details, and presents its characters as flawed and fallible, and they are all the more memorable for their flaws and fallacies.

Every chapter of Homegoing is set from a different perspective in a different time period and setting, generally following the story of the previous character’s offspring. Gyasi shifts her narrative from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and tells the story of concurrent generations as they face the problems dealt either by being African or by being African-American. These stories are sometimes filled with sorrow, sometimes joy. Sometimes I would need a few pages to remember the characters from the previous “generation”, so that I could place myself in history.

If I read this novel again, I will begin by writing the two names of the supreme matriarchs of this generational tale, and draw a family tree as I explore the different members of this one very, very extended family.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Homegoing here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, author John Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s and introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of this insular community are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. An eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as a quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the close-knit community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer (2018)

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Review 2.6

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. 

Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can’t understand the cruelty of our current system and place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.  [Source]

This is my first time reviewing a book that I’ve listened to on Audible instead of actively reading in print. I wondered how it would affect my enjoyment and also if it would impact my ability to remember and retain information. I wanted my first book to be nonfiction and I chose Shane Bauer’s follow-up novel to his acclaimed 2016 Mother Jones exposé My Four Months as a Prison Guard. In American Prison, Bauer goes into greater depth and detail regarding his time at Winnfield Prison. He also takes a look at how we got to this sad state of affairs.

Roughly half of American Prison is taken from Bauer’s personal accounts and observations during his time as a prison guard in Louisiana. He details his application process, which was less in-depth than an interview for KFC. Mainly, his potential employers just wanted to make sure Bauer was okay with low wages and mandatory overtime. No psychological review was necessary for the job, which becomes readily apparent once Bauer meets his fellow coworkers. He chronicles his interactions with the inmates as well, and establishes a connection with some of them. I was particularly fascinated by an inmate named Derek, who seems close to actually being friends with Bauer. They discuss the hardships faced by both inmate and guard and the shortcomings of the prison to deal with the needs of both. Derek seems like an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Bauer later informs us he is in prison for multiple counts of rape. Bauer’s keeps a personal account of the ways his personality changed during his time as a corrections officer. His stress level rose, his empathy plummeted, and he suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia. All for nine dollars an hour.

The other half of the book is a supervillain origin story of sorts. Bauer looks at the history of the American private prison system in the hopes of determining at what point it became acceptable to treat humans as business commodities. Sadly the answer is a bit like the hypothetical chicken and egg. Private prisons saw increase an in popularity during the latter half of the 19th century, and Bauer argues that this was connected to the ending of slavery after the Civil War. State-run plantations which previously relied on slaves for free labor now had to look elsewhere, and a few enterprising eyes fell upon the convict population. By using convict labor, the plantations could continue operating at minimum cost and everyone from the wardens to the politicians could continue lining their pockets. Bauer follows the history of various state-run prison systems in the southern American states as they went from being for-profit farms to being for-profit holdings pens for millions of incarcerated individuals.

American Prison offers a bleak but realistic depiction of the current state of affairs in America’s private prison. The epilogue, in which Bauer recounts the fallout from his Mother Jones expose, was particularly bittersweet. Apparently, his story caught the attention of the Obama administration, and a law was passed abolishing private contracts for federal penitentiaries. Two years later, the Trump administration revoked the law, and now more inmates than ever are behind the bars of private prisons. On a more positive note, the shareholders are doing swell.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Prison here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition of this book is narrated by James Fouhey, and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!